Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Too Much, Too Soon

       For whatever reason, much of what I've been noticing in the area of educational reform has been falling largely into the same basic model, albeit with some different flavors. (Surely the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon in action after my last post.) Here's the basic idea: to keep kids engaged and improve education, increase the demands. Frequently this means more AP courses at younger grades, with pre-AP tracks starting in middle school. If not AP, then some sort of dual-credit program. However it's done, the prevailing notion is to increase what passes for rigor.
       I could go on for quite a while on my problems with this approach. In fact, that theme directly and indirectly runs throughout this blog. So I won't. Instead, I'll offer an analogy.
        At increasing speed for the past two decades, highly competitive sports programs have extended their reach into younger and younger age kids. These kids are asked to specialize in the sport; and they undergo longer, more frequent, and more physically demanding training. They--and their families--often do so to pursue visions of long-term and glorious success, i.e. scholarships and even professional contracts. But think for just a moment about how many athletes have even the slightest shot at those levels, let alone make it. For most it's fantasy.
       It's a sadder reality that we've since as this trend has emerged. We see a significantly higher percentage of young people suffering injuries, some of them quite serious. Some don't develop their all-around athleticism. Many become burned out in their early teens. Overall, I have to believe the damage outweighs the gains. All this happens because young people are being forced into developmentally inappropriate situations.
        It hasn't worked in sports for the overwhelming majority. Why would we expect anything different in academics?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hmmmm. Really? Too much innovation?

One could actually argue that the social sector is rife with too much innovation. Each day a new “silver bullet” seems to emerge that will somehow solve all our challenges. What we really need is to be more informed about where we innovate and to what end. (Tom Vander Ark, Smart Cities ThatWork for Everyone: 7 Keys to Education and Employment, Loc 2522)

                Hmmmm. Really? Too  much innovation? I know I’m providing a snippet out of context. Surely that’s why this passage jumped out at me in a book I eventually found myself skimming rather than truly reading. So bear with me as I try to make some sense of this, which I’ve been trying to do for a few days now.
                On some level I get it. In fact, a couple of the points could be lifted right from previous posts on this blog or from presentations I’ve made. I’ve referred several times to the silver bullet thinking that seems to be inherent to education reformers’ thinking. I think it’s a result of the author’s second point, which is that we really lack a clear north star by which we’re orienting our efforts. Just think about some of the debates about the basic purpose of education. Is it life preparatory or college preparatory or job preparatory or all of these or none of these and actually something else? Even if you manage to reach some consensus on that topic, chaos can ensure about what it actually means in terms of implementation. We’ve all been through some curriculum skirmishes, if not outright wars. Both of these notions tie to another concern I’ve expressed: those schools which grab quickly onto any shiny new idea as the thing so rapidly that you can begin to wonder who they are at their very core.
                While I can see some validity to Vander Ark's claim, I’m still perplexed. Let’s put aside the fact that the book has basically outlines all sorts of “innovative” (yes, not the quotation marks; I’ll be coming back to this). It’s only now, after however long, that we’re beginning to see schools that look any different than they have for decades. I’m not talking about the outliers, those places which always have done things differently. I’m talking about those based on the assembly line model; in other words, the overwhelming majority. Even where we see new practices within them, they retain many of the same characteristics schools always have had. Some trappings have changed—kids many have laptops rather than notebooks—too many practices have not. The innovative often is not that different. When it is, that’s when we see what real, deeper learning looks like.
                To return to the skepticism-signaling quotation marks. Vander Ark seems to want things both ways. He writes this book to show how innovations in education are the key to cities flourishing—and I agree. But—big, bold, all caps screaming but—the innovations he holds out as grand and working are really not impressive.  In fact, they seem to be mainly about efficiency and pace, i.e. having more kids take AP courses at younger ages. He holds out many models of personalized learning, many of which would seem to be self-paced drill-and-kill work, with loads of testing to ensure accountability. If that’s the ideal, then of course you will believe that there is too much innovation. And of course I end up skimming rather than really reading.

                Now, reflecting on the book, I can help but thinking of that wild-haired genius who was deemed an idiot in school, Einstein, and the so-often used quotation that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” And we sure aren't going to end up with smart cities, at least not in the current and future world.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Despair or Determination? Post Mizzou and Paris

       The past few weeks have been one of those times when educators could give in to despair. That may hold especially true in independent schools. Far from the stereotype of snooty enclaves catering strictly to those of privilege, we've been striving for many years to address issues of equity and justice. We're not always successful, but many of our schools have become much more inclusive communities which emphasize respecting the dignity of each person. Some have become havens for those who may feel disenfranchised in other schools. We also don't rest on our laurels. For instance, recently there have been robust Twitter conversations around this topic on the #naisdeepdive thread. Here at St. John's Episcopal, one of our professional learning groups has been grappling with this issue and how our school can improve.
       Then we see the sort of incidents that have rocked college campuses from coast to coast, with those at Mizzou grabbing most of the headlines. As is usually the case, we don't know the pure facts about any of the cases. But we have seen them play out in a barrage of accusations and threats and undiluted rage. What we do not see happening--and we can only hope is--are the necessary honest, possibly painful sustained conversations that may wound but also foster healing. When we react in such fashion, how do we learn and grow? While not surprising, it is disappointing and ironic to see things playing out this way in academic institutions.
       The issues are legitimate and real. To deny that is ignorance. Our culture remains full of -phobias and -isms of all sorts, whether overt or subtle or institutionalized. And it's not just American culture. We see it thoughout the world, whether in the racist chants of ultras at European football matches or in the barbarism of groups such as ISIS, most recently in Paris last Friday.
       It saddens and scares me. I mean that in a large sense, but also on a very personal level that really hit me after the Paris attacks. My sixteen-year-old son's close friend was taking him out for a birthday dinner. His friend is a devout Muslim. As they headed off, I found myself worrying that someone would do or say something to them.
        At such times, it's easy to throw up one's arms and scream, "Really? In 2015?" To see our work in this area as futile, due to some dark flaw in human nature, some need to reduce our humanity to binary terms which become an us and a them. When that happens, we'll never understand each other. It's why I disagree when we hold out the notion that we should, for instance, be color blind when it comes to race. I believe we need to recognize and seek to comprehend the way certain characteristics shape who we are and our perspectives. Then maybe we can come together in ways that lie at the idealistic heart of most independent school educators.
       Rather than despair, we have to become even more determined. We can't respond just in extreme times; instead, we must commit ourselves to teaching basic humanity every day, in ways large and small. We have to wave the flag even higher, confident in our belief that education can bring true enlightenment.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Make a Makerspace?

       Not surprisingly, a recent #isedchat on Twitter focused on makespaces. (I couldn't participate that night, and I haven't read the archive.) They are a hot topic right now, and many schools either have opened or are planning to open makerspaces, often with some very clever names. Here at St. John's we have a couple of rooms that we are thinking of doing something interesting with. Of course, some people have suggested a makerspace. Right now, it's "the thing" to do. Meanwhile, I take pause.
       That hesitation does not signal some anti-makerspace stance. Actually, I love the philosophy behind them--that hands-on, make-a-mess, take-chances sort of experiential learning. I love the active engagement of makerspaces. I love that they are places where kids do rather than get done. So I don't deliberative because of any pedagogical reasons. I just want us to take five or ten and think about a big question.
       Shouldn't the entire school be a makerspace? Either literally or metaphorically?
       Instead, we create isolated areas that can serve as an analogy for how we treat what amounts to making in many areas of the curriculum. Let's consider a typical English program. Students learn how to parse sentences and to analyze literature; much of their writing becomes formulaic literary analysis, particularly as they grow older. Writing a short story is an "alternative" activity; creative writing is often available primarily through electives, if at all. All kids should be doing creative writing. Similarly, in history students can use their research--primary and secondary--to write the traditional research paper but also to produce documentaries. In math and science students could build scale models and simple machines, both of which would reveal understanding. Indeed, I argue that such activities lead to deeper, longer-lasting learning. I believe it gives students a stronger grasp on key concepts and skills, along with keeping alive positive attitudes about learning. It's why I'm proud that at St. John's we already take such an approach in many areas and always seek to add more.
       In a larger sense, the current fascination with makerspaces captures some of the truly sticky challenges with education reform. Some will dismiss them as just the latest fad, convinced that one only need wait until it passes and the next new thing (which may have been the next new thing once before) comes along.At the other end of the spectrum are those who glom onto the newest shiny object, seeing it as the silver bullet. The majority stand somewhere in the middle, not voicing too much dissent or excitement, not becoming too upset as long as they don't have to change too much of what they do. To extend the analogy another way, these folks are okay as long as the newcomer knows its place and stays there.
       At the risk of seeming cynical, I have to ask: How are makerspaces any different than the computer labs of 20-25 years ago? What's next--maker carts? Of course, it's now more common for technology to be more ubiquitous throughout schools. The hope is the same for the idea of making. Yet questions remain about how much of a transformative effect digital technology has had on education, especially versus the possibilities it creates. Part of the problem is inertia; part of it is fear; part of it is how we think we can measure success.
       Some irony exists in that I suspect part of the reason the makerspace movement has gained momentum is in response to the rise and spread of technology. Perhaps we've realized that we may have turned too much over to virtual experience. Did we really believe a virtual dissection would be just as good as actually wielding the scalpel and slicing into a frog, formaldehyde blasting our nostrils? Once again we are reminded of the need for balance.
       So perhaps in a way it is all cyclical. But makerspaces are different than computer labs in a key way. Early on, part of the reason technology remained in labs was cost. Another was portability. The truths of economics and Moore's law let us overcome those obstacles. When it comes to makerspaces, particularly if we focus on the philosophy, we face no such hurdles. The biggest stumbling block--perhaps the only one--may be people's mindsets.
       So here at St. John's do I want to make a makerspace? Certainly. For now, if I can't think of anything better, I'll take a great room. But ultimately I want it to be our school.
     

Monday, October 26, 2015

Affirmation as ROI: Thoughts after College Family Weekend

       This past weekend my wife, son, and I visited my daughter for Family Weekend at Bryn Mawr College, where she is a first-year student. We had a wonderful time meeting her friends and their parents, attending events on campus, venturing into Philadelphia, savoring great food, and hearing her perform in her a capella group. It was, as the college hopes, a quite affirming experience. After all, like independent schools, colleges want the parents to feel pleased with their investment, perhaps even beginning to see some returns on it. Of course, I also was casting my eye on the experience as a head of school.
       Fittingly, tonight I will attend a presentation by Frank Bruni, author Where You Go Is Not Who'll You Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. I referenced this book in a post from last May, when I wrote about the process that led to Kate's opting to attend Bryn Mawr. I suspect the title gives any reader some idea of the highlights, so I won't reiterate them. Between these two experiences, I've been thinking quite a bit about this idea of affirmation. More particularly, just what is it we want affirmed?
       I've written plenty in the past about my thoughts on the entire idea of return on investment when it comes to education. For a moment, I'll set aside my idealism and acknowledge the realities of wanting your children to find jobs, make a salary that allows a certain quality of life, gain admission to quality schools. I feel them myself. But my angst increases when these become the essential measure of success, the terms often dictated by others. The educational process must be about the making of a life.
       Thus I want to twist Bruni's title a bit. The selection of a college is not who one will be. But it can have a tremendous influence, in ways good and bad. I want to focus on the best scenario. In that case where you go will determine who you will be for a simple reason: it will help a young person continue to grow into a better version of her- or himself. It won't change them, at least not their core. In fact, it will be more like a sculptor chipping away at the stone to find that beautiful statue already within. Professors won't teach students what to think, but how to think; and how to articulate their thoughts more powerfully. I find myself returning to a post I wrote over three years ago, titled "Less I, More R"


                So how does one know? What is the measure?                Your child.                Despite our wishes that every family choose us because of our mission, I wonder what percentage do. Besides, most of our mission statements contain the same generic, albeit aspirational rhetoric that remains very open to interpretation.  Ultimately, the hopes and dreams of a family are highly individualized. Each has different wishes and wants and needs. It’s highly personal and internal. Yet so often we look towards external measures for validation.                Instead, look at your child. Ask yourself if you see her or him developing in ways that match your values. For me, this means continually asking some big questions. Do they still love learning? Does their learning lead them to engage with the world? Are they becoming more independent? Are they positive and optimistic about their potential? Are they steadily becoming better versions of their unique selves?
I don't want to embarrass Kate by detailing how we've already seen this happening with her. In general, there is increased confidence and maturity and independence. Certainly that makes us feel affirmed.
       It's why the notion of "match" and "best fit" are so crucial in deciding upon a school. And no matter how excited any first-year student may be, surely doubts about something can creep in. But one thing I've realized is Bryn Mawr is very intentional in how they treat students. And in an opening assembly on move-in day, either President Kim Cassidy  or Dean of Admissions Peaches Valdes told the new students, "In our admissions office we don't make mistakes." From that moment through Family Weekend and I'm sure beyond, my daughter has felt affirmed. I'm confident other young women feel the same. While parental pride and satisfaction is certainly important, the young women feeling so as they enter adulthood is what really matters. There's the most valuable return on investment. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Re-Learning Learning: Infodoodling 101

       Surely by now you've been at a conference or workshop and seen someone creating those amazing graphic overviews. Just in case you haven't, here's an example on Jessica Lahey's talk at the recent Changing the Odds conference put on by the Momentous Institute:



(You can see more of them on the institute's blog in the two posts recapping the conference.)
       I've decided I want to learn how to do this. Well, more accurately, I want to gain some basic idea of how.
       Sure, part of the motivation comes from my thinking this is just incredibly cool. I mean, who wouldn't want to be able to do this? But there's more to it than that--even more than wanting an excuse to buy more Moleskin notebooks and a pail of Sharpies in a bunch of different colors. No, it's not just some middle-aged head of school's desperate attempt to regain whatever sense of hip I imagine I may have had.
       It's about re-experiencing a certain type of learning. I learn all the time. For me it's essential, sort of like hydration, even breathing. Part of why I love my job is that it forces me to keep learning and growing, to keep taking certain risks. Usually it occurs the way we like to imagine school happening, with pieces snapping like Legos onto those already in place. There's something so assuring about that little click.
       This new venture, though, is different. I feel completely out of my element. I'm one of those people who says I can't draw. I've taken notes a certain way for a long time. I want the results more quickly than is reasonable. I've grown frustrated with what I quickly deem failures, like the total block I hit while trying to typographize certain phrases. The entire project has prompted some serious doubt about whether I can do it, leading to some anxiety, making me wonder if I should even try...even though no one else is forcing me to do this.
       And that's a really good thing. It's a great reminder of how some, perhaps many, of our students may feel at any given moment.As a school leader I need to think about how teachers may feel when being bombarded with messages from about how they must change so much of what they do. Each time I do one of my little units, I can imagine my amygdala taunting, "I'm going to clog up every possible synapse and keep you from learning this stuff!"
       So I'm forging ahead in a manner that seems well-suited for effective learning. First and foremost, it's entirely self-motivated and of my own choosing. I've gathered strong resources based on others' recommendations. I take small steps forward, mini-lesson a day, trying not to take in too much at any one time. When I step back, I'm pleased with my crumbs of improvement already. Surely we can find ways to run classes and professional development that way, yes? Then we can revel in the process without so much angst about the product.
       Anyway, reality is, I probably never will be produce something like the example above. Or I might... I'll report back later in the school year. No matter what, I'm enjoying my perhaps quixotic journey into the world of infododdling. If I keep at it, I'll celebrate by buying those Sharpies. But never will I be mistaken for hip.
     

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Parental Scare and Realization

       One of a school leader's top priorities--one I think many outsiders don't realize unless they really stop to think about it--is making sure a school is as safe a place as possible. From running routine drills to tightening up communications protocols to considering access points, we worry about it all the time. I spent much of my first few years as head particularly focused on such issues, and we had a board task force examine all our practices. We've made improvements in all areas. For instance, I swelled with pride when the fire alarm went off unexpectedly on one of the first days of school, meaning we hadn't practiced with the kids, and we emptied the building in around two minutes.  Of course, safety also refers to the atmosphere within the school. Children--none of us, really--learn when stressed. Negative emotions can hijack normal neurological functioning. Put these points together, and I like to think of it as climate control.
       Perhaps more than anything else, parents need to feel confident their children will be safe at school. In fact, surveys often point to this as a top factor in school choice. It's part of a school's sacred responsibility in the partnership. Recently this was driven home to me both as a head of school and as a parent.
       Surely anyone reading this blog knows about the shooting at an Oregon community college on October 1. It is just the latest in what we almost have come to expect, based on our lowered levels of shock and outrage. Fewer people likely know that the day after, someone posted on the same social media outlet as the Oregon shooter that a similar attack would take place at 1:00 CT on October 5 at "a university near Philadelphia."
       My daughter is a first-year student at Bryn Mawr College, right outside Philadelphia.
       We first learned about the threat when Kate forwarded us the college's communications to the students on Sunday evening. We talked to her that night; and, naturally, she was quite scared, especially about walking to her early morning work shift in the dining hall. We reassured her, checked in again in the morning, and monitored the Philly-area news. More than anything, I willed 1:00 to pass. It did, and we talked to Kate again. She was still unnerved, but she could laugh about how some construction noise had caused her and her roommate to hit the floor and hide. The college seemed to handle things very well. They communicated with the students about the situation their response and what to expect and what do if the nightmare came true. Extra counselors were available. Security was doubled and visible. Two of her professors cancelled classes, explaining they did not want to force students into making the choice of coming or not. Surely they understood where the students' thoughts would be. Tuesday morning Kate was still a bit on edge, but much better.*
       The temptation here is to jump on my soapbox. But I try not to become overtly political in my posts. Besides, if you're a regular reader, you could figure out where I stand on any issues related to this. And they were formed long before I had this more direct, immediate fear. There's not much I could add to the argument, and I think it's much, much more complicated than the "solutions" proffered would have one believe. In the meantime, from long distance the colleges--Bryn Mawr and others in the area--appeared to handle the situation as well as they could. All of us in schools are grappling the best we can in the face of this sad new reality.
       The experience made me face another reality. We learned about the situation from my daughter; we did not hear from the college, and their website did not have any information up early on. They had no obligation to inform us. I'm not angry about that. The fact is that now my child is a legal adult, the type that I'm very proud to see her becoming, What's harder to accept is the implication of all this--that I can protect her much less than I ever could.


*Tuesday morning brought another stretch of worry. While the larger threat seemed to have past, breaking news reported a man had pulled a gun at Philadelphia Community College. He was arrested, and the cause seemed to be a dispute between two people, with no ties to the other concern.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Processing #ChangingtheOdds Conference 2015

     Last Thursday and Friday I had the great fortune of attending the Momentous Institute's Changing the Odds Conference in Dallas. It's an amazing event, with perhaps the most stellar line-up of big-name presenters, as you'll see by the names sprinkled throughout this post. The theme was Chaos to Connection, and the program unfolded in a way that fit that perfectly. It also touched upon multiple aspects of education in a very holistic fashion--mind, body, and spirit.
     Any time I attend such an event, I like to spend some time reflecting and trying to integrate the pieces into a single big idea. With any luck, it won't be one of the more explicit ones. (You can read two such pieces after last year's event: one here and another here.) This this I was having some trouble coming up with anything even though so much of the experience has resonated with me. Then, on Saturday night, some friends invited us to see the musical Matilda. This morning the seeds of an idea began to sprout. This process post is an attempt to see how they grow.
     If you know the story of Matilda, based on the book by Roald Dahl, you may just want to skip to the next paragraph. Matilda is a little girl who is incredibly smart, so intelligent that a friend worries her brains will ooze out of her ears. Her intellect appears mainly through her voracious readings, and I won't tell you the other ways so that I don't ruin the story for anyone. Her parents are psychologically abusive, and she attends a hellacious school dominated by the bullying headmistress Agatha Trunchbull. She insists on strict rules and procedures and calls the children maggots; punishment is swift and brutal. Trunchbull refuses to see anything special in Matilda except that might be a threat in some way. The heroine is Miss Honey, Matilda's teacher, who overcomes her own fears to help Matilda.
     In some ways the connection to the conference is rather obvious, in that many of the speakers focused on helping students overcome trauma. The institute focuses heavily on social-emotional health of children; one goal is to help children learn how to help their glitter settle.
     But as I've been swirling my mental kaleidoscope, another idea has emerged. Yes, Matilda is an exceptional child. But an underlying message of the conference is that all people--especially all children--are exceptional. Thus I've discerned an unstated but loud cry for greater non-standardization of education. It's necessary for both individual development but also an educational system that serves everyone.
     The amazing Story Corps project led by David Isay reminded us how each individual has a powerful story. Those stories guide us, shape our perspectives, forge our character, and give us something powerful to contribute. We can learn from each other, We heard how blogger Glennon Doyle Melton survived the depths of her mental illness and now sees it as what enables her to inspire others. Paul Quinn college president Michael Sorrell told of how his near death from a cardiac event led him to become a better leader. All that makes sense when we think about how, as Daniel Pink illustrated, true motivation depends on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Similarly, author of The Gift of Failure Jessica Lahey argued that children have to be able to discover on their own what they can and cannot do in creating their own checklists. None of this happens in a world of rows and worksheets and bubble tests. In fact, psychologist Lou Cozolino explained how the assembly line system of education can inhibit learning because of how the social brain works best.
     For me, this boils down to three key issues as identified by Sir Ken Robinson. He said it's a matter of considering conformity versus diversity; compliance versus creativity; and linear versus organic. I see the question as practically rhetorical. I say "practically" because the ideal remains so elusive for far too many young people. They lack opportunities, or their talents go unrecognized or are devalued. We spend too much time focused on what kids should do...and not enough allowing them to discover what they could do. We're too much about efficiency and quality control; any flaws must be immediately fixed. If they're extreme enough, we scrap that product. There are those fortunate few who drop out at some point and succeed anyways. We tend to glorify them and hold them out as examples of how school doesn't work for everyone. True enough. But we forget about the much greater number who end up struggling for the rest of their lives. Yes, the standard approach works well enough for the majority. But is that good enough? Don't we want more for each individual?
     That's why we don't just need teachers. As educators we need to see ourselves as what Kevin Carroll called catalysts. We have to be the agents that spark change--on our own little corners, in schools and systems, and for each child. Then each will feel valued and empowered. Rather than merely conform, they will live per some lyrics from Matilda's "When I Grow Up":

When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you need to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.
(When I grow up)
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
nothing will change!
It doesn't mean that everything is written for me.
If I think the ending is fixed already,
I might as well be saying
I think that it's OK!
Just because you find that life's not fair
When I grow up
Just because, I find myself in this story,
And that's not right!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tipping Point(s)?

       In some ways, at least 40 or so pages in, Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, doesn't offer anything particularly new. The basic premise is one that has been repeated in many places by many voices over the past 20-25 years: technology is forcing changes at an incredibly accelerating rate, and humans have to adapt. I've written and spoken about it over and over and over. The cries have accelerated right along with the technology...well, honestly, behind the technology. After all, most of us have better hindsight than foresight. I'm sure the book will become more interesting once Colvin starts to address the part of the title following the colon.
       One snippet, though, did jump out and give me some pause for thought. Colvin quotes economist Tyler Cowen from a 2013 book: "But it takes more and more time for you to improve on the computer each year. And then one day...poof! ZMP for you." Colvin explains that "'ZMP' means 'zero marginal product'--the economists' term for when you add no value at all." Maybe it was the bluntness of the line; maybe it was a person being reduced to a product. Whatever the reason--and it's not absolutely logical--it made me wonder if we've reached a key tipping point or two.
       I've always contended that we remain in control of our machines. In a simple example, we can decide how tethered we remain to our machines. Do we respond to every enticing ping from the phone no matter what? But when I think about some of the work machines are now doing and likely will be doing soon, I wonder if we've ceded a much higher degree of control that we realize. Actually, I don't wonder. I know. In large part this is because, while formerly humans and machines often complemented each other, that is less often the case. Consider chess. It was considered remarkable when a computer first beat a human. Then humans and computers could pair up and play chess most effectively. Now the computer alone has the edge. Studies also chow how computers analyzing data in abstract situations often reach better conclusions when analyzed over time. That's the first tipping point.
       If that sounds rather dire, the second one is more hopeful. Yes, we still put too much emphasis on standardized testing, too much faith in packaged curricula. Yes, in some ways we've simply repackaged tired pedagogy in new technology. Still, I hear more and more tales of change. Of different models. Of more student-driven, active learning centers. Of greater focus not on providing simply answers, but on posing complex questions. Of school becoming more clearly relevant, flexible, meaningful. Of educators more aware of the need to help our students become, to play off the title, the high achievers who know what brilliant machines never will.
       We're not nearly where we need to be yet, and we have many hurdles to overcome. But finally we seem to be not only hearing the message, but also listening and responding.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Leadership Based on The Why

       During both our recent in-service week and our board retreat, I led everyone through an exercise based on the rather simple yet profoundly revealing idea that drives the thinking in Simon Sinek's Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.
(Here's a link to the book, and here's a link to his TED talk.) The basic premise is this: that those organizations which focus on the why are much more inspiring. As you might expect, Apple and Southwest Airlines are two primary examples. As Sinek repeats several times, people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. It's because these companies touch something very visceral in us. He captures this notion in what he calls the golden circle. It looks like a three-ring target. At the center is the why. As one moves outward, next comes the how and the what. Sinek argues that too many companies begin with the what and sometimes the how, but that they really aren't sure of the why. Well, at least not in any sense beyond wanting to make a profit, which he calls a result. Here is a set of graphic notes which capture the thinking:


       For the workshop I had small groups create a golden circle for St. John's Episcopal School. People went at it in different ways, but they ended up with a great deal of alignment in the center, albeit with some semantic differences.That, of course, was both affirming and gratifying. It explains quite a bit about our school. It also should help us as we embark on a very intentional marketing campaign. But the real power lay in the conversations. People looked both at our core and at our direction and the relationship between the two. I heard a great deal of important talk about personal and institutional behaviors in light of the why. People had to articulate ideals that they have but seldom express. Yesterday we followed this up with people pairing and sharing on what success looks like when guided by the why.
       The experience has prompted some reflection on leadership. In what I hope is some logical order, here are some of the insights and or confirmations:

  • A leader does not determine the why, at least not when it's truly inspiring. Otherwise, any success can become based on a cult of personality. Think about those institutions driven by a strong personality, which collapsed when that person was no longer there.
  • Instead, I think the leader discovers and believes passionately in the why and articulates it in many ways. The leader embodies it. The buy-in happens not because the leader convinces people, but because the leader has tapped into the why they already embrace.
  • Even when you have people who know the why on some level, they can lose sight of it in daily life. Thus, one of--maybe the--key role(s) of a leader is to keep the why in front of people, as part of both celebrating and correcting.
  • For that reason, leadership does not depend on position, on hierarchy. Anyone who plays the role of trumpeting the why can provide leadership from wherever, whenever, however. Therein lies the power of more distributed leadership.
  • That points to another key role of the leader, one tied to her or his articulating and embodying the way. It's hiring the right people. The people who hear/see/feel the why and clamor to join you.
     Finally, during our board retreat I noticed something which affirmed both Sinek's point and these last few thoughts. During other parts of the day, people often prefaced their comments with phrases such as "If we start with why..." and "When you consider why we..." It does strike something very primal. And it strengthens my belief that a major purpose of education should be to help young people find their meaning and purpose, their personal why. Then they can lead lives based on it. Think about the amazing implications of that for everyone, individually and collectively.

     

Monday, August 31, 2015

Finding the Holy Metric

       If you read this blog with any regularity, you've seen numerous comments and even full posts about educational metrics. There are simply too many for me to provide links. I've railed against ones I abhor, extolled those that seem worthwhile, patched together comprehensive packages of various ones, and contemplated "new" ways to capture educational value. Sometimes it feels as if I've spent a large part of my professional life for the past fifteen years on the quest for the holy metric of education.
       Recently I may have found it, even grasped it for a moment. And it made me so proud of St. John''s Episcopal School. 
       Before I share it, I ask you to take a moment and reflect upon a pretty basic question. Basic...but one I'm not sure we talk about enough. What does great learning look like?
       On Friday, August 21, I experienced a first in my 33 years in education. As I took one of my walks around the school, I didn't see a single classroom in which students were simply sitting and listening. I saw them engaging in lively discussion, working in small groups, brainstorming on idea walls and researching on iPads. They were spread out among the room and even spilled into the hallways. I saw students creating in art classes, baking gingerbread men, reading in quiet corners, and playing in PE. Everywhere I went students were engaged in active learning. There were loads of smiles and shining eyes.
       Of course, I Tweeted about it, which led to these two responses from Grant Lichtman, who's probably visited as many independent and public schools as anyone the past few years:
My pride grew even more, and since then I've been gushing to folks about it and hoping I help them understand what a big deal this was. It may not indicate an individual student's progress in any particular area, but it highlights how we're creating the fertile environment for tremendous individual growth. The type that comes via great learning.
       I haven't had the same experience since. But now I know it can happen. The North Star has become more distinct and even brighter because we're drawing ever closer.
       

Monday, August 24, 2015

As My Daughter Leaves for College

       Tomorrow my wife and I bring my daughter, Kate, to college for the first time. She's matriculating at Bryn Mawr College right outside of Philadelphia. (You can read about the selection process here.)It's one of those moments that both seems to be here all of a sudden and feels as if it's been a long time coming. Yes, it's full of all the feelings you've either experienced or can imagine. This time is also one of those points, like a new job or perhaps a particular birthday, when you take stock of some things if you're reflective at all. Even more than usual, I feel the dual roles of parent and head of school blending in both my thoughts and emotions. So while I write this post during a brief lull from those many last-minutes tasks, I'm doing so from my professional perch while hoping they resonate even more with fellow parents.
       I believe you can tell a great deal about what really matters by what you really stew about, often revealed in the questions you're asking when left with only your deeper thoughts. They're the deeper doubts which lurk beneath the tiny anxieties that nip at our ankles each day. Similarly, certain points may dart in and out of your consciousness, but they don't alight long enough to signify any true fear. In my case, I think my fatherly ruminations at this point capture my professional beliefs quite well.
       Let's deal with academics first. I don't think I've ever wondered at all what sort of grades Kate is going to make. I've thought about her academics in much more holistic terms, such as how she will respond to the challenges and in what ways she will stretch intellectually. I wonder what courses and/or professors are going to grab her interest and perhaps lead to a major. I wonder what passion will be roused, perhaps one that lasts for a lifetime.
       But that's about as far as I go in thinking about her academic work. And I'm aware, perhaps even hopeful, that the final awakening in that last paragraph could occur just as easily outside of class. That's where my questions can really take off. Will she find activities that engage her? That sparkle because of mutual recognition and kindling of her talents, perhaps ones that she doesn't even yet know she has? Will she connect with dozens of fascinating people who both support her but also challenge and provoke her? Will she believe she can continue to be this fiercely independent young person who is who she is? At the same time, will she form those life-long friendships so many do in college? Will she take good care of herself, including continuing her love of long bicycle rides, and others? Will she be okay? No, much better than okay? Will she figure out her place in the world?
       I imagine, even have faith, that the answer to all these will be affirmative. The wonder, though, comes with the territory of educator and parent. Not just at times which are real milestones, but each and every day to some degree. It is at the larger moments, however, that we have to ask about the rest: Was I worrying about things that really matter in the long term?
     

Friday, August 14, 2015

Simplicity!

"Complexity arises whenever a system--technical, social, or natural--has multiple, interdependent parts." 
"Meeting complexity with complexity can create more confusion that it resolves."
          --from Simple Rules by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt

          I don't think many people would argue that in most ways our world has become more complex, mainly through the intersection of a greater number of moving parts. As the authors point out, examples can range from the increasingly global economy to home entertainment systems (versus an old-fashioned tv) with tangles of wires and multiple remotes. They also point out how complex US tax codes have become--a situation which has led to more and more people being in violation simply through ignorance rather than defiance. Even tax experts ended up finishing with vastly different returns for the same family because of the complexity. The lesson is simple, perhaps even obvious. The greater the complexity, the greater the chances for problems of any sort.
          Schools are naturally complex systems. Anytime you bring together a large number of people and attempt to unite them towards a common purpose, even in the best of situations--complexity arises. After all, each person is a complex organism. But I wonder if we've made school/education more complex than it needs to be. I've hinted at this notion before, particularly in a post titled "Biggest Change in the Last 30 Years of Independent Education?" My answer: "how much more schools are expected to do." You can add to the mix how much more we know about brain development and cries for innovation new models for curricula and numerous other points. It's all great stuff, but it certainly adds to the complexity. Sometimes it seems as if respond by drafting more and more arcane tax codes of our own. So I've been thinking about this idea for quite a while, and this book brought it back to the surface from deeper in the juices of my mind. How might we, I've been wondering, simplify the complexities of school? And is this how we zero in on the true priorities? How we help students have deeper, richer learning experiences?
          The authors explain how we can manage complexity by creating simple rules: "shortcut strategies that...focus our attention and simplify the way we process information." They say these must be very particular, tailored to a given situation, while also providing clear guidance without being overly prescriptive. Simple rules are not a once-size-fits-all solution for cutting through complexity. Yet they work when well articulated. One great example the authors give is triage on battlefields and how that has cut the mortality rate.
         I'm sure this could help in schools. In some ways, I'm reminded of a key element of design thinking, in that the simple rules could provide a degree of restraint. It's an approach I plan to use on some projects this year. Grant Lichtman, from whom I learned about the book, has posted about some very concrete ways that schools could benefit from using simple rules.
          Since I seem to be doing nothing but stealing from others in this post, I'll close with what I hope are a couple of other compelling bits of my own. Recently I was listening to a pro football player being interviewed. At higher levels, sports become incredibly complex. Pro athletes always talk about just doing their job, focusing on their role, doing the simple things right...add your own cliche. Usually we don't think twice about it. For some reason, during this recent interview, I found myself thinking there is real wisdom in that. And it's a perspective that helped these people reach the top level.
          Then there is this passage from a letter by Henry David Thoreau:
"I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run."








Friday, June 26, 2015

Do We Expect Too Much of Leaders?

     I imagine the past week has prompted some reflection on the part of school leaders all around Dallas, perhaps nationally. First a fellow head of school resigned, and a few days later the superintendent of the Dallas public schools stepped down. I'm not going to comment much on the reasons for either case. I've heard only bits and pieces about the former, which happened suddenly; and while the latter has been played out in the media over a couple of years, I haven't paid that much attention.There are other reasons I'll refrain from commentary. I recognize my biases in the first case, and I know they are only affirmed by what I've heard. I tried not to fuel any gossip about any situation, especially when I know so few of the facts. Finally, when it comes to other heads of school, I try to adopt the stance of former U.S. presidents, who refrain from public criticism of the current president because only they truly grasp what it's like to hold that position.
     Please don't think I am saying heads of school have anywhere near the sort of pressure-packed, life-or-death responsibilities as a world leader. My point is that almost everyone who moves into the role--no matter what their preparation--comments on not really being ready for the complexity and sense of ultimate responsibility. It can prove unbalancing. Even as one grows into the job, a certain edginess persists. The stories from last week came as a stark reminder about the many ways and how quickly things can unravel--even when there are many, many apparent successes.
     I don't mean this to come across as whining, although I realize it could. Heads of school accept this, mainly because it's a very fulfilling job. We have to grow constantly as individuals. Our jobs force us to learn about myriad topics. We work with fascinating people. And we get to do it all in a profession that really matters. To paraphrase poet Taylor Mali's response to the question about what teachers make, our work "makes a difference."
     Still, we face a potential dearth of school leaders, especially heads of school. Per the National Association on Independent Schools, two-thirds of current school heads will retire in the next decade. However, a very large majority of potential replacements indicate no desire to become a head of school. The reasons vary and offer some insight. Mainly, they look at sitting heads and decide it's just not worth it. I'd argue that it is, and I'd also challenge fellow heads to do a better job of cultivating their successors.
     But recent events beg a larger question for me about leadership: Do we expect too much of our leaders? Perhaps a better way to ask that would be: Are we fair in our expectations of our leaders? ( mean all leaders--not just those in schools.) It's a much more complicated, multi-nuanced issue than it might seem at first blush. Plus one must flip the question and ponder what leaders can fairly expect of their constituents. There are no easy answers, and pondering all of them could go on for several more posts. In the meantime, I'll just finish by saying how much gratitude and respect I have for those who take on the challenges of leadership and show great integrity in circumstances such as those which prompted this post.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Data, Boxes, Curricula, Fork in the Road

"If you don't know where you're going, any road'll take you there." –paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland
"If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else." and "When you come to the fork in the road, take it!" --Yogi Berra
            At the recent gathering of school heads from Independent Schools Association of the Southwest members, we heard a presentation which was about the relationship between big data and fundraising. More specifically, some of what big data has revealed about fundraising and some common practices we need to reconsider. I picked up some good tips and some pointed questions to ask. More than thought, I found myself thinking about some of the more general implications of big data.
            The speaker used the analogy of a reservoir that keeps filling up more and more. No surprise there, as we all know how much is out there…and how much more keeps appearing. He also compared it to advertising at Times Square; in the past, I’ve used the analogy of advertising at a hockey game. It’s really quite overwhelming, and it creates a certain pressure/guilt: I know all this information is out there, and I’m not really using it, but I sure should be, and I better spend all of this time mining through it, and I’ve got to see what patterns emerge, and what about what I’m not finding, and then there is that data that tells me how much better I could be using data, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We’re lured by the siren song of data at the same time we’re told we have to think outside the box.
            Now, I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent person. But sometimes it’s all enough to make me—and, perhaps to make myself feel better, just about anyone—feel like a doddering simpleton.
            Some of that is because we’re human and how we learn. We develop conceptual schema. As we encounter anything new, we figure out how we can latch it onto some hook within those schema. Eventually we form a rather tightly woven intellectual framework. Our box.
            So when faced with torrents of data, most of us have the natural instinct to figure out how it fits into those boxes. Because of that tendency, telling someone to think outside the box can almost become not just a cliché but a platitude. Besides, it implies that in some ways the box is okay and we should leave it alone. We can venture outside it for a while, pretend to be all revolutionary in our thinking, but know the whole time we can return to the safety of those tried-and-true packing crates.
            As humans, we need boxes. They help us make sense of things. So I’m not saying we need to destroy the boxes. I’m arguing that we need to re-design them. How does great design begin? By asking much better, more beautiful questions.
            The larger point, of course, is about more than dealing with a deluge of data. It’s about new ways of thinking. This is hard to do with adults. But we can help young people become adults educated in ways that make this easier. In doing so, we need to take what I just said about boxes and consider the notion of curricula.
            As many of you surely know, the word curriculum has its roots in Latin and refers to a race or a course of action, a path. It implies a clear destination that one can reach by retracing proven steps. People often derive comfort from knowing that a school has a well-articulated, tightly-sequential curriculum. They may scoff or sneer at any deviations; at the least, they raise an eyebrow, maybe both. Enough people trod a path, and the ruts deepen. The ground hardens, inhibiting any chance of new growth. Those traveling the path, like the students in a classic scene from Dead Poets’ Society, fall into lockstep. They can end up marching right into boxes. Those boxes which perhaps used to work.
            Just as that presentation prompted me to think about re-designing boxes for development purposes (and for all other purposes), we need to be reconsidering every aspect of curriculum, explicit and implicit. After all, we’re living in a time when we don’t know exactly where we are going. Myriad possible paths will lead us there. None of us can know what they all are. But I’m positive that taking the same old path won’t have kids ready for what they encounter once they go get there. We reached that fork in the road a while ago.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Charge to Class of 2015: Share the Cookies

Last night we held commencement for the St. John's Episcopal School Class of 2015. I gave the following remarks as my charge to them:

When I had the good fortune to work with you a bit in class last year, I asked you to write moonshot essays. I hope you recall the notion of a moonshot vision—something really significant which others might deem impossible, but you believe it’s how you can change the world for the better. You had some amazing ideas, and I know you will have plenty more. In fact, we’re kind of counting on you to do so. I want to share with you three key things that can help you achieve a moonshot, whatever it might be. A simple chore. Cookies. Gratitude.
#1. Every morning, first thing, make your bed. No, your parents did not ask me to include this. You may be thinking what I thought at your age: Why do that when I’m just going to use it tonight? Here’s the reason, the only one that ever has made sense to me. Do that one easy thing, and you start the day with a victory. You’re 1-0, and you can build momentum. It’s also about responsibility and discipline. And how the little things can add up to big things.
#2. A few years ago, college researchers conducted an experiment replicated many times over. They broke students into three-person groups. One person was randomly appointed leader. Each group was put in a room and asked how to solve some difficult ethical problem, such as how to eliminate cheating or to broker world peace. Meanwhile, researchers observed them through a one-way window.
After thirty minutes, someone brought the group four freshly-baked cookies. Yes, four cookies for three people.  Obviously each person got one cookie. But that left one cookie just sitting there temptingly, its delectable aroma wafting through the room. Awkward, right? Each person craving the cookie, yet pretending he or she was happy for others to have it. But it wasn’t awkward or hard to resolve at all. Because in almost every case, the leader grabbed the fourth cookie and ate it. More like devoured it with lip-smacking, drool-dripping, crumb-flying fervor. You know: in a way to emphasize who the leader was.
Now remember, this leader had been appointed randomly just 30 minutes earlier. His or her status was due entirely to luck. But evidently that was enough to make all of them assume they deserved the cookie rather automatically.
This ties to #3: Gratitude. I know you’re grateful to be sitting here as new graduates of St. John’s. I want to put that in some larger context for you—the context of luck. Without even being aware, you were appointed leaders of the group, and it happened before you were born.  Without even buying a ticket, you won the genetic lottery.  Here’s how.  Current world population is just over 7.2 billion people. Just by the circumstances of birth, perhaps a couple other twists, each of you is in the top 5% of humankind in terms of wealth, health, security, and potential. That means out of a random group of 100 people your age, you got a big head start over 95 of them. Or, in total, over 6.85 billion of them. Quite good odds for success. Adding to this immediate advantage, you’ve had myriad opportunities—lessons, clubs, travel, whatever. Foremost among them: St. John’s. And if you think about it, that St. John’s even exists, let alone your getting to go to school here, has some luck involved. So practice gratitude and be sure to count your lucky stars.
Of course, luck doesn’t really matter if you don’t take jump at the opportunities it provides. You have thus far, and now you sit here, poised for the next phase of your lives. The big question: what is that going to be? I don’t mean summer plans or even high school. I hope St. John’s has challenged you to think about how you’re going to take all you’ve been blessed with and go out and make a positive impact. A successful moonshot. How you will do that is vitally important to ponder. You will continue to be faced with the extra cookie, probably dozens of them. At times you will earnestly believe you deserve it. Sometimes you just may truly have earned it.  But you and the world will be better off if you make your bed, express gratitude, and always share the cookies.

Congratulations, Class of 2015. We will miss you, and I wish the best of luck on all your moonshots.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Trusting the Long-Term Process: Reflection on Daughter's College Selection

     My daughter, Kate, recently decided that she will matriculate at Bryn Mawr College this fall. She is absolutely thrilled, and everyone in the family has their Bryn Mawr t-shirts. Even a few months ago, let along a year ago, I would not have predicted this outcome.* I'm bringing this up because our experience hold some illustrative lessons not just for finding a college (or high school), but also for the educational process in general.
     During the spring break of her junior year, Kate and I took a college trip while my wife and son did their own thing. Our trip was based on her belief that she wanted to attend a large urban university in the northeastern United States, preferably Boston or New York. Her college counselor also suggested some other places for perspective and exposure. She gladly agreed, but remained adamant about one thing: she did not want an all-women's college.
     After the trip and some reflection, we reassessed and spelled out the new criteria. Small liberal arts college. Liberal political atmosphere with commitment to social justice. Vibrant music and theater program for her to participate in, although not major in. Preferably in the northeast, but not necessarily. Did have to be near a big, lively city...but not right in the city. Near a train station so she easily could get into the city, and the train also should take her in the other direction to beautiful natural areas for long bike rides. Co-ed. I remember thinking, this makes it easy since probably around a dozen colleges fit all these criteria exactly!
     One school kept rising to the top in her mind, and I believe she wanted to apply early decision. We nixed that idea for assorted reasons. The most compelling one came from her college counselor (new since the other had moved to a different school): Kate will be a different person in the spring than she is right now. We identified the list for Kate to consider now, and he convinced her to keep an open mind about Bryn Mawr. So, with that in mind, we planned another trip for the fall. We kept Bryn Mawr on there since we would be near it visiting another school. We had a very nice time there--as we did everywhere--but nothing that made me think, "This is the place!" Kate seemed to feel the same way.
     Then came the applications, more interviews, waiting, happiness, disappointment, more trips, reflection. Most of the news was very good and quite affirming, but we tried not to get too high or low with any of it. She was going to have strong options, and she said several times she could be happy at any of her choices. One moment, though, stands out in hindsight. She texted her mom and me, "I got into Bryn Mawr!!!!!" Note the multiple exclamation points. We hadn't seen quite such a reaction to any other place. Soon she reduced the choice to two colleges: another and Bryn Mawr. A trip up with my wife, and they were hooked. The more I've learned, the more I'm sold. Meanwhile, I've done loads of wondering about how we ended up with this choice.
     I think the answer is simple: we trusted in the process. And while that process felt interminable at times, that turns out to have been a good thing. As that counselor predicated, she was a much more mature young woman in the spring, able to make a more informed, self-aware decision. The entire time she had been doing her research (more than we realized), doing some healthy self-reflection, and thoughtfully weighing pros and cons while remaining open to anything. Speaking of those counselors, I'm so grateful to them. By them I mean her first counselor and then his replacement; and I mean the admission counselors at the colleges who, despite the pressure for high numbers and yield, always made us feel they had Kate's best interest in mind. I know many other people--adults, friends--helped in different ways. We listened to people who had different perspectives on Kate. It was a multi-faceted partnership. And none of us began with definite outcomes in mind other than a sense of pride and fulfillment. Although I did sometimes have to remind myself it was where she felt best about, not where I would want to go. Similarly, as one college counselor reminded me, "See this through her lens. You naturally love ____ because you see what's happening there through an educational leadership lens."
     I also think this experience, while condensed, captures how education in general should work. It is a long-term process, one that is anything but linear. It's full of frustrations and excitements and quandaries and realizations, often coming in ways we simply don't expect. And if we can just have faith and trust, it's a really beautiful thing.

*I am choosing not to mention the other schools to which she applied. They all are great places, and I don't want anything I write to suggest otherwise. Plus I believe very strongly in the philosophy expressed in Frank Bruni's Where You Go Is Not Who'll You: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Drone Parenting? Yes, Really

     We've all heard about helicopter parents, to the point where it's become a cliche.* I read something the other day that I thought was a clever twist on this notion: that during college admission process, such parents go into full Cobra attack mode. I found myself wondering just how far could the comparisons go...and just how far would some parents go in their hovering.
     Then, this morning, I saw this Tweet:

Sadly, I'm not as shocked as I probably should be. As I wish I could be. Now what's next? Constant surveillance? Tracking chips implanted? Technology that lets us know our children's every thought?
     If I were to boil down a parent's job to one point, it might be that we should aspire to prepare our children to lead autonomous lives of value. I really like what I heard another head of school say one time. When a child is in lower school, it's the parents' job to manage the child. In middle school, it's the child's job to fire the parents.And then our next career shouldn't be as pilots.

*I like another version that refers to snowplow parents who clear everything out of their child's way.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Reflecting on Mission and National Day of Silence

       Today is this year's National Day of Silence, sponsored by GLESN. On this day thousands of students across the nation take a vow of silence to "raise[ ] awareness about the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying, harassment, and discrimination." Having worked in a school where many students joined this movement, I can attest to how powerful an event it can be. It's a powerful reminder of both positive and negative facets of human nature. Even though I now work at a school where our students do not mark this day in an outward way, I still find myself reflecting on the issues raised and why I believe so strongly in our mission and ethos.
       For the purpose of this post, I'm not interested in debating any of the hot-button issues surrounding homosexuality. Even if I were, I doubt I could change anyone's beliefs, and people have the right to form their own beliefs. But I don't think we have the right to treat each other hatefully. So rather than wage an argument, I'm focused on behavior and how it affects others. My point is a very human one. We have too many people who suffer in silence. And they do so because of how others may or may not treat them. I know young people who struggled desperately before coming out, to the point of self-harm and psychological damage. It's easy to understand why. Consider how easily people use anti-homosexual terms and thoughts to deride something. Recently the news has included several stories about businesses refusing service to homosexuals, even a doctor refusing to treat the child of a gay couple. There's no telling how deep the literal and metaphorical scars go.
       While this day focuses on LGBT issues, it causes me to think about other areas where the same sort of scenario plays out with both kids and even adults. Consider the stigma attached to mental illness. To lower incomes. To learning differences. To certain physical attributes. We still struggle mightily with issues of race and faith. Check out the comments sections on many media sights, and you'll quickly grasp why people might feel devalued, and even when not directly targeted. So imagine the pain when the barb is aimed right at you.
       I'm not sure why this happens; it's likely that plenty of reasons come together. Surely some is limited knowledge. Some is learned. For some it is their true belief. Some people tend to fear that which is different or not understood. Stereotyping and scapegoating make the world easier to comprehend. Certainly there's also a degree of schadenfreude. Highlighting others' "issues" can help us feel better about our own. And do I really need to point out that we all have them?
       It becomes a vicious cycle perpetuating hurt and hate. It's why the mission of schools such as St. John's Episcopal--and many other great institutions--is so vital. For us, it's quite intentional that our mission ends with the words "in a Christian environment." To make that notion more concrete, one of our five tenets is to be "an inclusive community where the dignity of every human being is respected." For us to fulfill our mission, we must develop both our students' minds and their spirits. We must inspire them to build up rather than tear down. Then more and more people will feel not that they have been forced into silence, but that they are valued and heard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Work That Matters

       For some reason, lately I've been thinking that I want to read Thoreau's Walden again sometime soon (and not on an e-reader!). Maybe it's been triggered by a visit to Concord and the pond last summer. Or that I recently wore my Thoreau Sauntering Society t-shirt ("'Tis a great art to saunter"). Perhaps because at home we've talked about watching Dead Poets' Society. Could it be that I simply want to escape for a while?
       In what I'm sure is a case of the Baafer-Meinhof Phenomenon, recently I've also seen several references to one of the oft-quoted lines Walden: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." At the same time, I've also read several pieces in which the subject was asked a very common question: If you weren't ____, what would you be? It's interesting to juxtapose those two lines and ponder their possible relationship. Of course, the question is simply a way to know someone better. But it also suggests that many people are always dreaming of something else, perhaps of work more meaningful and fulfilling. I really don't know. But I sense it when I hear and read about people and their relationship to work in particular.
       It also reminds me how fortunate I am. Were I to be asked the question, my answer would be simple: I don't know. It's not lack of imagination, and certainly I experience moments of desperation. But I can't see myself as anything but a career educator. After all, what's better than doing work that matters?
       

Friday, March 6, 2015

Lost Time, But Learning Not Lost--Past Two Weeks at St. John's

     In some ways I'm having a hard time believing that today is the last school day before Spring break. Some of that comes from the usual time-sure-can-fly-by-when-you're-having-fun sense I derive from my job. But it's also pretty circumstantial. Last week we hit an inclement weather (in this case, ice) trifecta: closings, an early dismissal, and a late start! Yesterday we awoke to record-breaking snow in the DFW area, the accumulation reaching 7" in some spots. Most of it melted by yesterday afternoon, and we didn't have too much re-freezing overnight, so we get to enjoy one more day of school before a week off.
     Of course, during such times one naturally worries about learning being interrupted, especially with the break coming. So I found myself cataloging some of the really cool ways St. John's students have been engaged in deep learning experiences the past week. Before I start my list, I apologize to whomever I leave off, because I know from experience there are even more than I include. As you read the list, notice the variety of experiences, both in an out of the classroom, on campus and far away:

  • On Wednesday evening our sixth grade girls won their league championship last night.
  • Our sixth graders tested their science chops as detectives at the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
  • Eighth graders served as tour guides for their classmates at historic monuments in D.C., later Skyping with first graders. They also placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
  • Those first graders are redesigning the dollar bill with key symbols of the United States.
  • Seventh graders trekked through Brazos Bend State Park while on their way to Galveston for science study.
  • Fourth graders have been practicing their Number the Stars monologues for the always-powerful original production based on the book. This comes after creating incredible works of art about the book that are now displayed in the school.
  • Fifth graders have been preparing their cases for their witch trials as a wrap-up of their study of The Witches of Blackbird Pond, also tied to their history work.
  • Second graders are collaborating on an All About Insects book work and watching the effects of the weather on the tulips they planted several months back, sharing that information with multiple partner schools.
  • Pre-k and K students continue to explore whatever catches their fancy while cementing those essential basic skills. Plus they're helping to create our approaching CultureFest event. Three adorable little bits just delivered my personal invitation to "our CultureFest 2015."
  • At various times during the weather episodes, our teachers connected with their students and their parents via RenWeb and other tech tools to keep the learning going.
  • Meanwhile, like many other schools, we've been celebrating Dr. Seuss week!
As one person here commented, "Interesting to me to think about how all of these individual moments in a single week contribute to the collective experience of being a student today. It's like a web, physically (geographically) stretched this week, but still tightly woven." This also suggests the integrated, holistic approach that we take at St. John's--the modern education that provides young people with what they need right now but with consideration of what they need to thrive in the future. Note, for example, how many of the examples include creativity and collaboration and relevance.             And it heartens me to think that all this has been happening during two crazy weeks when the learning could have been derailed. It thrills me to know that I could compile such lists just about any time of the year.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Affirmation Through Absence: Thoughts on #NAISAC 2015

     I'm writing this post somewhat out of guilt. I had been honored to be selected as one of the official bloggers for the NAIS Annual Convention this year. But I ended up not making it to the convention this year--the second year in a row. Of course, I'm sorry to have missed it. Last year it was for health reasons (all better now). This year weather messed with my schedule and I needed to stay in Dallas. Based on the last couple of days, that's probably just as well, given my need to be back and how many haven't been able to fly in because of snow and ice. It's also leading to an interesting "experiment," which I'll try to capture in this post.
     We know technology has changed how we do so many things, some of which we couldn't do before. Once I knew I couldn't attend the conference, I wondered how well I could gain a sense of events through social media and a few phone calls afterwards. I'm very grateful to all the people who posted on the community site and the many people tweeting. I've also seen some great photos; I especially liked the close-ups of the work done by the graphic artists.What follows are the points I gleaned as perhaps dominating the conversations. I know they are heavily influenced by whom I follow, and for someone else these might be very different. I also add a bit of my own reaction.


  • As one would expect when the conference theme is "Design the Revolution," there seemed to be loads of sessions and energy around design thinking. That's awesome, and more and more people seem willing to embrace this approach. At the same time, I sensed some worry that eventually it will fade away as other buzzwords do. There seemed a mix of whether or not the point of empathy with the user was lost at times. If that's the case, and we end up, for example, just redesigning curricula, I think we've missed the point. After all, even before we knew the term design thinking, aren't the basic principles of it what we are supposed to have been doing all along?
  • People had a mixed reaction to the panel of college presidents, with some thrilled they were acknowledging issues, but many others feel they were not accepting their part in the issue or offering any solutions. I don't think we can count too much on them to do so, as they feel the same pressures many independent schools do. I wonder how we balance our idealism and our realism.
  • Tied to that notion, loads of verbiage about having the courage to make big changes, debate about whether significant change is hard or uncomfortable, whether teachers or administrators are the more willing or loath to make such things happen. One thought I have is that until we bridge that last gulf--along with breaking other real and imagined constructs--it likely won't happen. It comes down to getting the culture right before anything can happen. That, and as I've written many times, truly embracing our independence.
  • Quite a few complaints about "boring" sessions which failed to include any real engaged and active learning. That's worrisome, for it makes me wonder how people still doing things that way are going to design any sort of revolution. For that reasons, among others, I also wonder about this idea of revolution. Our schools do many things right, and I think we also need to look at progress in relation to where a school starts. Plus, constantly changing too much, too fast always makes me wonder if a school truly knows itself. The change must be thoughtful and measured to be meaningful. Having said that, I'll contradict myself and admit I often want it to happen much faster. As a head, it's tough to know how to strike the right pace and balance (a topic I'm planning for another post soon).
Finally, I realize an eternal truth once again. It's a great one for us to be reminded of quite regularly. It's a notion that Lori Carroll captured in an earlier post about the #isedchat Tweetup in Boston. For all the talk about more education being on-line and the end of giant conferences, I don't believe it will happen to the extreme that some people imagine. There is simply something essential about the communal experience of coming together for a common and admirable goal. Kids need that from their schools, and we need that as independent school educators.
     For that reason, I fully intend to be at annual next year, and I hope to be asked to blog so I can make up for dereliction of duty this year. In the meantime, I'd love to know if I captured the flavor of this year's event and what I missed.

Cross-Posted on 2015 NAIS Annual Conference Online Community

Monday, February 23, 2015

My Reason for Heading to #NAISAC 2015...I Hope

            Two days before the 2015 NAIS Annual Convention, and I'm wondering if I will make it to Boston. Ironically, after the horrendous winter New England has endured, the weather here in Dallas is raising the doubts. After a relatively warm winter, we've had our first ice storm of the season. Just an inch, but that cripples North Texas, and there is no warming expected. This would be the second consecutive year I miss, which would really be a drag, for "annual" is one of my year's highlights.
            The possibility of missing again has me wondering just why I feel that way. Many reasons are obvious: the colleagues, many of whom I see only at this event; the amazing speakers; the sessions; wonderful meals in new restaurants. But there is something deeper than that. We come for affirmation.

            As independent school leaders, we accept the challenge of moving our institutions--indeed, the entire enterprise of education--forward in very exciting, but very uncertain times. As the conference theme calls, we are to "Design the Revolution." In doing so, we have to operate on faith and vision and imagination, all vulnerable to cynical challenges. Annual conference is a time that assures us we may not have all the right answers, but that many of us are asking crucial questions.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Gut Reaction to Interview with NFLer Turned HS Coach

     This morning I heard a radio interview that had me excited, but ultimately disappointed me. It was with former NFL quarterback Jon Kitna, who is now a nigh school football coach. He recently moved from Tacoma to Waxahachie, TX, to become the head coach there. Pretty cool, I thought, especially when he talked about how he wanted to coach in high school so that he could have a positive impact on so many young men. In fact, he talked about how that was the plan coming out of college, for pro ball never seemed a possibility. He and his wife, also a teacher and coach, dreamed of being some school's "power couple" in terms of helping young folks. I loved it, fondly recalling the soccer coaches who helped to shape me.
     Then it turned sour. The radio host asked Kitna if he would be teaching a class as he had in Tacoma and if he liked doing that. No, Kitna explained, he wouldn't. He then elaborated that he was glad about that because when he was "stuck in a classroom" he "couldn't have an impact on young people."
     I hope Jon Kitna didn't mean that the way it hit me. I believe he didn't mean to insult the many dedicated educators who bust their tails every day to make a positive impact on young people. And who do so without the adulation that comes with the Friday night lights, especially here in Texas. I want to trust that won't be part of the message as he's making that impact.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Not so Fast--Pondering Rate of Change

       When does something become cliched? Is it when the frequency of use reaches a certain level? When it captures a truth we now all accept but people still attempt to use it for shock value? I'm not sure; the answer is probably some combination thereof. I am, however, positive that it has become rather cliched to use the following (or some sort of variation): "If you think the rate of change, mainly forced by technology is fast now, just you wait cuz you ain't see nothing yet!" If used it myself, such as in this post. I've used what's happened the past three decades to make the argument for schools changing for years, in writings and in presentations such as this one. I still believe the part about schools needing to change in response, but lately I've been wondering about the continued acceleration. This is happening for several reasons.
       I don't question that we live in a time of extreme, rather relentless change. I feel it every day in some form or fashion. However, humans tend to be rather short-sighted about history, and we usually believe that the time in which we live is the most whatever. But just as every age has had its share of doom criers, I'm certain each has felt the angst of extreme change. After all, in many ways this is a relative phenomenon, dependent entirely on that to which one is accustomed. Right now we 're seeing the extreme direct effects of digital technology on our lives, and we envision it dragging us in its wake right towards the Kurzweilian singularity before we can even realize what's happened. It's as if we believe Moor's law is universal and applies to everything--not just processing power, but disruption and influence and implementation. But humans don't progress per Moore's law.
       Actually, neither does technology. Yes, the rate at which processing speed has doubled since the invention of the microchip has enabled incredible advances. But those advances actually are simply building upon decades of work, much of it begun with the work of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in the mid 1800s. Walter Isaacson's The Innovators makes very clear how the development of current technology is the result of many, many people, often working independently, attacking the same challenges for a long time. It's a classic case of multiple forces coming together in various ways at assorted times. For the most part, progress was slow, with sudden breakthroughs at key times. 
       I'm reminded of a short writing assignment I had to do in graduate school for a course called The History of American Ideas. The professor challenged us to come up with an original metaphor tto capture how history proceeds. I compared history to a Slinky. My contention was that various factors come together over time, and the there is a gigantic springing forward. Then the cycle repeats.
       I wonder if now we're somewhere in the springing forward, and perhaps towards the end of it. Things may slow down for a bit, gathering for another unleashing. Of course, I easily could be wrong. After all, cliches become so because people discern some truth in them. Either way, we still need to make sure we're educating kids for their futures, whatever they may be.
     There's another reason it really doesn't matter who's right about the rate of technological change. Too often we act as if technology is happening to us, and certainly it often feels that way. But to invoke another cliche, as a human creation, technology is just a tool. It's value neutral. Rather than worrying so much about the rate of change, we need to spend more time talking with young people about what needs to change. Not just regarding technology and in schools, but everywhere. And maybe to bring about that desired change that much more quickly.